Forty Years Since the Unsolved Tylenol Murders

This article is about the unsolved Tylenol and copycat poisonings with cyanide in painkiller capsules. My involvement in the case was as an analytical chemist to develop rapid methods for analyses of the potentially millions of suspect products recalled from shelves of drugstores. The hope was that such chemical testing might give clues to investigators concerning the distribution of tainted products that could lead to an arrest.

It’s been 40 years since seven people died from cyanide poisoning from adulterated extra-strength Tylenol tablets. The victims had purchased bottles of Tylenol, on store shelves, in suburban Chicago. A completely ordinary thing to do. They were tragically unaware of tampering with an unknown attacker who had replaced the contents of the pills with cyanide [1]. It was a shocking incident that completely changed sales and production of pharmaceuticals. Today, we take for granted the safety of drugs and medicines because they’re produced in tamper-evident blister packs or sealed bottles. This was not the case before 1982.

Unfortunately, this incident attracted copycat attacks in the years that followed. It was after such a copycat attack in 1984, this time on a different brand of painkillers in Westchester County, NY, that I became involved. I was at Indiana University, Department of Chemistry, Bloomington IN and I had become friends with my office-mate, now Professor Robert Lodder (at the University of Kentucky, College of Pharmacy). Rob was working on combining Near-infrared Spectroscopy with intelligent algorithms, using statistics and mathematics, for an enhanced interpretation of the data.

Seemingly out-of-the blue, Rob asked me about sampling devices for intact-capsules for near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). I was able to get a technical diagram and specifications sketched out and booked into the machine workshop within a day, with a shiny polished aluminium sampling device being returned to me a few days later. The major advantage of this device was that, provided it worked, represented a non-invasive analytical technique. Fortunately, it did work, so analysts didn’t need to open the capsule to find out what was inside. You could do so rapidly so the technology fit the requirements for examining individual capsules from millions recalled from drugstore shelves. Alternately, the analytical technique would apply to a pharmaceutical production line.

The sampling attachment led to a patent: Sample Holders or Reflectors for Intact Capsules and Tablets and Liquid Microcells for Use in Near-infrared Reflectance Spectrophotometers [2]. This device won an R&D100 award as one of the top 100 new products for 1985 by Research and Development Magazine.

With the sampling attachment in hand, I got to work in preparing the samples by placing varying amounts of sodium or potassium cyanide into various brands and types of painkiller. Despite the macabre nature of the study, we often laughed because of the black humor inherent in what we were doing. During a mid-point in this study, we both went out to Pofolks restaurant (Bloomington IN) with our then partners. That evening, we all laughed until our sides were sore. Anyone overhearing our conversion would have considered us to be escaped lunatics, or worse. Fortunately, no-one seemed to eavesdrop that night, or if they did, they didn’t report it to the police. I’m also happy to say that I’m married 36-years to my girlfriend on that night.

I must be one of very few individuals worldwide to have filled medicinal capsules with cyanide for a legitimate scientific purpose. I have never revealed some details, thinking that these details might be important to a police investigation. Filling capsules with cyanide was a messy process since the cyanide salts absorbed water vapour from the atmosphere. You needed to weigh, make NIRS measurements rapidly, and then store the samples in a desiccator. The jell material of the capsule became discolored otherwise. Overall, the work was 6-8 weeks from conception to the first draft of the work. I don’t think I ever worked so fast or hard, or laughed so much. We published the results in Analytical Chemistry [3].

Of all the people I’ve worked with, only Rob Lodder would have called his statistical algorithm the quantile BEAST for bootstrap error adjusted single-sample technique. It was his way of stamping the work with his unique personality. I can attest, because I was there, that he spent barely 30 min. coming up with that BEAST acronym. It was hard to keep up with him. Put simply, the BEAST takes a training set of NIRS data for known untainted capsules of painkiller. A hypercylinder is used to encompass the spectral spread of untainted capsules. If NIRS then measures an unknown capsule and the spectral data is more than a statistically significant (3σ) distance from the hypercylinder, we suspect the unknown capsule of being tainted with a possibly dangerous foreign substance.

Conclusions

Initially, the intent of our research was to develop a rapid method for investigators to work through millions of recalled products in order to help track down the murderer or murderers. For the 1982 Tylenol case, the US-FDA (Food and Drug Administration) tested 2 million capsules for evidence of tampering. Unfortunately, the research and development time from laboratory to scientific paper to field usage made, as it often does, this impracticable. The NIRS technology that we worked on some 40 years ago has become a small gear in a very large suite of platforms for quality control and assurance in pharmaceutical manufacturing that has allowed our modern society to have confidence in the security, safety and efficacy of modern drugs and medicines.

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[1] R. A. Vargas, Tylenol murders: daughter tells of toll of unsolved killings, 40 years on, The Guardian, Oct. 02, 2022. Accessed: Oct. 23, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/02/tylenol-murders-chicago-illinois-unsolved-1982

[2] R. A. Lodder, G. M. Hieftje, and M. Selby, Sample holders or reflectors for intact capsules and tablets and for liquid microcells for use in near-infrared reflectance spectrophotometers, US4882493A, Nov. 21, 1989 Accessed: Oct. 24, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4882493A/en

[3] R. A. Lodder, Mark. Selby, and G. M. Hieftje, Detection of capsule tampering by near-infrared reflectance analysis, Anal. Chem., vol. 59, no. 15, pp. 1921-1930, Aug. 1987, doi: 10.1021/ac00142a008.

My Experience with Responsive Graphics for Science Articles

In this article, I ask the question.

What if you wanted to be a modern day Don Quixote and self-publish research direct to the internet with WordPress rather than through a science journal?

I’ll attempt an answer based upon my own journey in section 2 of this article. First of all, you need some basic infrastructure for publishing suitable figures within WordPress. So I’ll spend some time addressing that issue. For publishing on the internet, you need responsive graphics. There is an overlap between interactive graphics (as discussed below)) and responsive graphics.

But the important difference, as I see it, is that responsive graphics should invite the reader to respond to and participate in the story that you’re trying to tell with the graphic element As described later in this article, the scientific literature is often author-centric. Most researchers would be blithely unaware of the importance of responsive web graphics because they publish their most important work in journals.

The charting plugin that I have been using is wpDataTables from TMS plugins provides for publishing data tables and charts from data sources including databases and Excel spreadsheets. In all 31 different types of charts are offered, though many charts have a business focus. Responsive charts for self-published science remains an immature area of focus for technology providers. This is why the review that follows is important.

Continue reading “My Experience with Responsive Graphics for Science Articles”

Kamala, the Inflection Point and the Geek vs Freak Election?

This is not an article about politics but it is about the Democratic National Convention (D20) held in the last week. Specifically, it’s about one phrase in the speech by Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris (see video). The phrase is “inflection point” that was also echoed the following day in the speech by Presidential candidate Joe Biden. It seems that the Democratic Party are hoping that this phrase will be a rallying call for them come Election Day in November.

“We’re at an inflection point. The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid.  The callousness makes us feel alone. It’s a lot. And here’s the thing: We can do better and deserve so much more.[1].

Continue reading “Kamala, the Inflection Point and the Geek vs Freak Election?”

Update — Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system … It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. George Orwell, Part 1, Chapter 1, in 1984

Source: Flickr by walknboston

In an earlier post Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption I described the extraordinary events of 6 Dec when the so-called “encryption busting” Access and Assistance Act passed into law on the last hours of the last sitting day of  Federal Parliament before the end of 2018.

It passed after the Labor Party opposition, who had been opposing the AA Bill (Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfuss described it as being “obviously dangerous”) gained a promise from the Government that amendments to the Bill would be considered when Parliament reconvened in February. Well that’s now and it occurred last week on the 13 and 14 Feb in a Bill introduced as the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2019 [1].

Continue reading “Update — Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption”

Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption

The Kingswood! You’re not taking the Kingswood, I’ve just shampooed the dipstick! Ted Bullpit, Kingwood Country (TV series 1980-4)

Most Australians are very cautious about whom they hand their car keys to. In that regard, they’re still a bit like Ted Bullpit (played by the late Ross Higgins) from the iconic Aussie 80s sitcom Kingswood Country (see the quotation above).

So how did encryption key laws pass both houses in the last hours of the last sitting week of parliament (6 December) in the lead up to the summer parliamentary break?

Given the apparently innocuous-sounding name of the “Assistance and Access Bill 2018” [1] it happened so quickly, at a time when most Australians were distracted with their preparations for the holidays. I’m not sure that many people will have much idea that the Australian Government now have presented our law enforcement and surveillance agencies with the right to circumvent internet encryption keys for matters pertaining to criminal and terrorist investigations.

Government Case

The Government’s case has been led by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has consistently stated that laws enforcement agencies need powers to intercept encrypted messages to keep Australians safe from criminal and terrorist threats. He’s argued that the new laws modernise the way that authorities can access information but doesn’t expand on current surveillance powers. A key feature of the Government’s approach has been to stonewall objections to the Bill by the tech industry.

There’s a reason for the amendments to be referred to as  the “Assistance and Access Bill” It’s as if the Government were condescendingly saying: “you tech guys are really smart, we need these surveillance and protection laws, just do your jobs and give us the technical assistance and access required.” Oh, and if you don’t do so voluntarily, we’ll make you do it by imposing heavy fines or imprisonment, on you as an individual, not just your company. Continue reading “Careful to Whom You Hand the Keys for Encryption”

Science Advisor to President Trump

The Man

I’ve been interested in who would fill the position of Science Advisor to Donald Trump since I posted this article (on LinkedIn) a year ago. Kelvin K. Droegemeier (pictured [1]) was confirmed by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to be the Head of the OSTP. However, he still has one final hurdle of approval by the full Senate to overcome later in the year. I’ve been reading about him, his scientific background, his career, and religious convictions. He reminds me a lot of my late father-in-law, both in the resemblance of his photograph and in aspects of his character. I’m hopeful that he just might be the voice of reason in that America needs in the White House right now. I’ll tell you why later in this article. Continue reading “Science Advisor to President Trump”

An Epiphany, or Two, of Sorts

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.

Has anyone else noticed that nobody really has ideas anymore? It somehow seems too pedestrian to have a mere “idea” when you can have an “epiphany” instead. I heard this on Breakfast TV this last week: “you know I’ve had an epiphany, of sorts.”  Was that you Karl Stefanovic? But epiphany on its own seems too grandiose, so as if to compensate, you add the comma and “of sorts” as an afterthought. Curious! But I caught myself saying the same thing this morning.

You see I’ve had an “epiphany, of sorts” as well. My “new” Chromebook reminded me of an “epiphany, of sorts” that I had way back, in around 2006, about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). I’ve just connected this epiphany with a new “epiphany, of sorts” that I had this morning, about how great Chromebooks would be for personalized education. OK, this is getting ridiculous, I’ll just go back to having ideas from this point. Certainly, there was no heavenly trumpet or the presence of angels associated with having the idea. But I did have that ah-ha! experience of connecting ideas over 12-years apart.

Continue reading “An Epiphany, or Two, of Sorts”

So now I have a Chromebook

Chromebook

So now I have a Chromebook clone from my revived Kogan Atlas X14FHD, what can I do with it? One reason for using CloudReady Chrome OS was that I was finding that my Ubuntu 18.04 notebook was not connecting at all to the wifi in a hotel I stayed at. Although based upon Gentoo Linux itself, my “new” Chromebook seems to be much more reliable with captive portal wifi connections than does native Linux: on about par with my ASUS Windows 10 notebook.

My main motivation in using a Chromebook was to find a less distracting, more mobile and productive environment, for writing and blogging. This proposition is, at least for me, confirmed: my 14-inch notebook Kogan is far easier to lug around with me than my 15.6-inch ASUS notebook, for writing and notetaking. there’s no loss of system responsivity.

As an extra bonus, I’m finding better battery life since switching to CloudReady Chrome OS Although the replacement of the HDD with an SSD would have helped a little too, my battery life with Chrome OS was about 2-3 hrs. With Windows 10 on the same system, the battery life was more like 1½ hours.

Chromebooks and Microsoft

Although Microsoft has improved things somewhat, Windows 10 systems are notorious for taking hogging your bandwidth to download 4 GB of updates and then taking over your entire system for hours on end while those files are installed. By way of contrast,  Chrome OS updates itself in minutes, the bandwidth footprint is tiny, the updates are installed as they are downloaded into a special account area. The next time you reboot, your updates are ready to go. This is as it should be: updates from Microsoft are no reason for you to lose productivity.

The Chromium file manager showing how cloud-based files on Box can be managed similarly to that for Google Drive using the Box add-on (see discussion).

Continue reading “So now I have a Chromebook”

Back from the Dead (part 2)

This continues from my previous article about reviving my thought-to-be-dead Kogan laptop so I could take advantage of its FHD (1920×1080 px) display, have a less-distracting environment for getting writing done, and be able to try out a Chromebook-like notebook with CloudReady Chromium OS by Neverware.  One issue with a cheap Kogan notebook is the paper-thin stack of documentation supplied by the manufacturer, either in the box or online. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t locate anything remotely like a service manual: the logic, apparently, is: “why would you want to repair this?” Just junk it and buy another. As market logic: yes, it makes sense, I spent less than $400 AUD on it. As planet logic: a big fail for sustainability.

Continue reading “Back from the Dead (part 2)”

Back from the Dead (part 1)

I chose the title ‘Back from the Dead‘ because I wanted to write about getting my notebook computer working perfectly again after it was unresponsive and assumed a ‘goner’ 25-months ago. But it also seemed appropriate for my first blog article after almost 6-years since I shut down my, now defunct, chempraxis.wordpress.com chemistry-teaching blog.

My revived notebook with Chromium OS

Continue reading “Back from the Dead (part 1)”

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